While Tunisian Jewry Dwindles, Many Recall A Leader With Love and Awe
Tunisian Jews have seen their population plummet. Once 105,000 proud, the numbers dwindled dramatically with every step Israel took toward modern statehood. But the Jewish story has never been about numbers. This is especially true in Tunisia, where one dedicated Jewish leader stayed on under steadily worsening conditions, all for the few who remained.
(Lubavitch.com) In the eyes of census takers, the Jews of Tunisia are circling the drain. Since 1948, they’ve experienced a 99% population drop, with fewer than 2000 Jews left today, mainly in Tunis and on the island of Djerba. Yet a surprising number of community leaders have sprung from this small corner of northern Africa, where international politics have meant trouble for the Jewish community.
Boards of Sephardic congregations across the United States are populated with the names of Tunisian Jews. Jacques Boutault, mayor of the second arrondissement of Paris, who lit the menorah at the Paris Opera for Chabad is married, reportedly, to a nice Jewish girl from Tunis. In Israel, the head of an organization that offers chaplaincy services to Jewish inmates is from Tunisia. Board presidents of synagogues and rabbis in Paris suburbs share similar accents, because a generous portion of them has Tunisian roots. Gilles E. Dana, originally from Tunis and a former student of Rabbi Nisson Pinson, Chabad’s representative in Tunisia for 47 years, is the president of Sephardic Jewish Congregation and Center of Queens.
“Everyone one of us became a leader because we saw how Rabbi Nisson Pinson conducted himself as a leader,” said Dana.
Upon learning from a Chabad of France website that Rabbi Pinson passed away, Dana stopped the presses in his publishing company and caught a plane to offer his condolences in person. Throughout the week of shiva at the home of Rabbi Pinson’s daughter, a Chabad representative in Nice, France, visitors who called the late rabbi their “spiritual father” unraveled the mystery behind the surprising impact of Tunisia’s Jewish sons and daughters.
Rabbi Pinson and his wife Rochel created much of the Jewish educational infrastructure that saw Tunisia’s Jewish population through very tumultuous years and continues its work until today. Rabbi Pinson performed circumcisions and produced kosher meat. Elie Attoun, who attended Chabad’s schools in the ’80s, recalled Rabbi Pinson’s work to re-establish and build “all the mikvahs of Tunisia, in Tunis, Djerba, Zarzis where the Jewish community remained.”
Shortly after arriving in Tunis in 1960, Chabad-Lubavitch opened Tunisia’s first school for Jewish girls, Bet Rivkah, and built up the boys’ school there. At their peak, the schools had student body of 300. Mrs. Pinson, now in her late seventies and living with her children in France, flies in to Tunis each month to run teachers’ meetings, hire staff and keep tabs on the school she shepherded for decades.
Along with students, the schools nurtured its teachers into leaders. A former Talmud teacher, Rabbi Meir Mazuz now heads Kisse Rahamim yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.
Yeshiva Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch, the boys’ school and Chabad synagogue in Tunis, was open seven days a week, the beating heart of Chabad’s work in the country. After school hours, boys from local public schools studied with Rabbi Pinson, moving from basic Hebrew phonics to Talmud and advanced Jewish philosophy texts. On Shabbat afternoons, they stayed after services, singing, listening to the rabbi’s teachings, developing a desire to continue Jewish traditions. During the summer, the Pinsons hosted a summer school at their home.
“In 1960, when the Jewish community was dying, Rabbi Pinson filled the vacuum when people thought we would disappear,” said Daniel Brami, a psychologist from Tunis now living in France. “It was a revolution to create a Talmud Torah.”
Sustaining that revolution in the sixties demanded a serious measure of self-sacrifice. “I remember peeking from behind the curtains of my father’s office, watching the mob surround the school,” said Faige Hecht, Rabbi Pinson’s daughter, today a Chabad representative in Nice, France, remembering a traumatic day in 1967, after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War.
“They attacked the great synagogue, desecrated the Torah scrolls and burnt them.” Students had to be evacuated stealthily from the school. “They wanted to burn my father’s car. I remember seeing them open the car door, turning the pages of my father’s Jewish books in the car, looking at the Rebbe’s picture. My father, every inch a chossid with his beard and his hat, opened the door and tried to calm them down.”
The school survived, but the community’s matzah bakery was left in cinders. Machine made matzahs could be imported from France, where many Tunisians Jews immigrated after those harrowing days, but handmade matzahs could not. Dana still savors Rabbi Pinson’s passion for performing the mitzvah. The rabbi personally oversaw the harvest, koshered and retrofitted an industrial coffee grinder to turn the wheat into flour, and built a matzah oven. Weeks before Passover, drifts of flour coated the desks, and the school became the matzah bakery.
“The only way to get handmade matzah in Tunisia was through Lubavitch.” Dana reminisced. “We knew what he did was for the sake of heaven. He did not have a support system, and he stayed because he was sent by the Rebbe to sustain and revive Judaism in Tunisia.”
Stoking the flame of Jewish life meant being unafraid in an increasingly uneasy environment, despite government’s official cordial stance toward Tunisian Jews. The government underwrites the salary of the Grand Rabbi (not Rabbi Pinson) and finances the cost of restoration and maintenance for synagogues.
Yet, when Egypt’s Pres. Nasser died days before Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, the Jewish community moved to cancel public services lest the holiday traditions and services be misinterpreted as a celebration of the leader’s passing. That year, Chabad stayed open, shofars blowing, without incident.
Rabbi and Mrs. Pinson stayed, but they did not expect their community to embrace the hardships of Tunisia where small problems – like the paucity of kosher products – competed with larger ones like when the PLO set up headquarters in Borj Cedria near Tunis in 1982 or when Al Queda-claimed 2002 bombing of the ancient Ghirba synagogue on Djerba.
“The people who still have businesses in Tunisia and the well-to-do will stay for the time being. It is hard to foresee what will be with the rest of the community,” Mrs. Pinson told Lubavitch.com.
Transplanted Tunisians now living in France and Israel still turn to the Pinsons for leadership. They flock to the homes of the Pinsons’ sons on days that are significant to Tunisian Jews.
Rabbi Yossef Yitschok Pinson, Chabad representative in Nice, returns to Tunisia several times a year to lead community gatherings. Jewish life continues in Tunisia, mainly in Djerba, and thousands of Tunisian Jews return each year to celebrate Lag B’Omer.
From his home in Tunis, Elie Attoun reflected on Rabbi Pinson’s leadership.
“He sacrificed many years for us. The fruit of his work will never die.”